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A CurtainUp Review
Such Things Only Happen in Books
As part of its tenth anniversary celebration, Keen Company is presenting an evening of two such playlets, The Angel that Troubled the Waters and Now the Servant's Name Was Malchus, along with three one-acts: Cement Hands, Such Things Only Happen in Books (which serves as the title of the entire show) and In Shakespeare and the Bible. All five pieces are directed by Keen artistic director, Carl Forsman and Keen resident director, Jonathan Silverstein.
The two playlets, which bookend the evening, are both inspired by biblical stories from the Gospel of John. Now the Servant's Name Was Malchus comes from the story of Jesus's sparing of a high priest's servant. In Wilder's version Malchus (Clayton Apgar) begs God (Kathleen Butler) to make people stop talking about him back on earth so he can have some peace and quiet. The last piece, The Angel that Troubled the Waters is inspired by the story of how Jesus cured an invalid by a sacred pool called Bethesda. In Wilder's play an angel (Sue Cremin) cures the sick.
Cement Hands and In Shakespeare and the Bible are part of a larger, unfinished series on the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Ages of Man which Wilder intended to write in the late 50s and early 60s. Cement Hands is about avarice, most specifically the stinginess of New England millionaires such as Roger Osterman (Clayton Apgar) whose plan to marry Diana Colvin (Pepper Binkley) is foiled when her uncle, Edward Blake (Kevin Hogan), reveals Osterman's true nature to his niece. In Shakespeare and the Bible, about wrath, Wilder shows how "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," when the former madam, Mrs. Mowbrey (Kathleen Butler), decides to get even with her sister by wrecking the life of her niece, Katy (Pepper Brinkley).
Such Things Only Happen in Books takes an amused look at the nature of reality and its relationship to art. Its hero, a novelist named John (Paul Niebanck), tries to find grist for his literary mill, ignoring that it lies all around him.
This is a pithy evening indeed! Unfortunately, wise lessons do not necessarily make good theater. For the most part these plays are ponderous, vague and lacking in direction. People who are not familiar with the Gospel of John will not get much out of the playlets, and only In Shakespeare and the Bible has even the faintest hint of dramatic conflict.
These plays might do very well in Sunday school, perhaps with a discussion afterwards. On a public stage they fall flat. Doubtless the Keen Company was overwhelmed with good will and a love of Thornton Wilder. But even the best playwright is not always at his best. And when this happens, even a fine company cannot save him.
Editor's Note: This is the Keen's third Wilder evening. In 2005 they prsented two of his one acts The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden & Pullman Car Hiawatha and in 2006 Matthew Burnet's adaptation of Wilder's novel Theophilus North